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Newspapers weren't late to online news — they were way too early

Carl-Frederic De Celles

When a new technology is invented, there's often a lot of doubt about its utility. People have trouble imagining how a seemingly exotic technology could be useful to ordinary people. And there are often major concerns — cost, reliability, safety — that seem like obstacles to widespread adoption. Bitcoin, self-driving cars, and personalized DNA testing are three examples of technologies that seem to have a lot of potential, but currently face a lot of public skepticism.

A big reason for this is that people often underestimate how long it takes for new technologies to become mainstream. The New York Times recently tweeted out a fascinating article from its archives that illustrates this point. It's about newspaper executives' early experiments with digital news services. And the article isn't from 1995, when the internet first came to widespread attention. It's from 1980 — a decade before the World Wide Web was even invented.

Here's what people were saying about online news in 1980, and what lessons it holds for today's cutting-edge technologies.

In 1980, people were already debating if online news would kill newspapers

"We see it as a new development on the communications scene," said John C. Quinn, vice president for news at the Gannett Company. "My own view is that it will evolve into an additional service for the public, not unlike what happened with television after World War II. Remember how TV was going to kill radio and newspapers?"

Back in 1980, the possibility of computers killing newspapers seemed remote. And it was! Electronic news services wouldn't pose a serious threat to newspapers for another 20 years.

Yet of course, in the long run, computers did pose an existential threat to newspapers.

Newspapers were already worried about falling behind the curve

"We are advising those who own information to experiment and get involved now," said Haines Gaffner, president of Link, one of the leading advisory companies monitoring the new electronic information services. "But many publishers are by nature conservative and their attitude is 'We can wait' and let pioneers like Knight-Ridder do the experimenting."

Some pundits fault newspapers for failing to anticipate technological change and adapt to it. But I think this illustrates how unrealistic it can be to advise companies to experiment with new technologies as early as possible. The reality is that no amount of experimentation in 1980 would have prepared newspapers for the challenges they would face a quarter of a century later.

The market for online news services was so tiny in the 1980s that it would have been impossible to make significant profits in the electronic news business.

These early news services didn't use the internet, which at the time was still just a university research project. One of the services the Times mentions was part of the dial-up service Compuserve. The other was apparently a dedicated dial-up service. These kinds of proprietary dial-up services were rendered obsolete by the internet in the 1990s, and newspapers' investments in them wound up being wasted.

A 1981 ad for CompuServe, which cost $5 per hour ($13 per hour in 2014 dollars) to use. (Tom Simpson)

Indeed, part of the reason that newspapers were slow to adapt to the web is that by the time the web got big in the 1990s, newspapers had been experimenting with online services for two decades. And based on those experiments, they concluded that online services weren't a serious threat to their business.

People underestimated how much better computers would get

Eventually, of course, online news became a viable business. The reason is that computers got a lot better:

"Our concern," he said, "was that if people might get their information in this way, they might no longer need newspapers."

This, of course, is the concern of the entire industry, although those in the business are quick to point out that a newspaper costs only a fraction of what it costs to have at hand a personal computer that will provide the newspaper's equivalent on its screen. They also note that you cannot tuck a computer under your arm as you head for the subway, any more than you can use a home computer to swat flies, wrap fish, or train the dog.

Computers in 1980 were big, bulky, and expensive. You couldn't put them under your arm and carry them on the subway. Today, of course, computers not only fit under your arm but in your pocket. And computers are a lot cheaper than they used to be, dramatically expanding the market for electronic news services.

New technologies often take 30 years go to mainstream

The long lag between initial experiments with online news and the maturity of the online news industry isn't unusual. Indeed, as Microsoft researcher Bill Buxton has pointed out, 30 years is a typical period of time between the first experiments with a new technology and mainstream commercial success.

The first mouse was invented in 1965, but it took until the mid-1990s for mice to be a standard computer feature. The first packet-switched network was invented in 1969, but the internet didn't become mainstream until the late 1990s. Multitouch interfaces were first developed in the early 1980s, but didn't become a mainstream technology until the iPhone in 2007.

That suggests we shouldn't underestimate the disruptive potential of technologies, like self-driving cars, personalized DNA testing, and Bitcoin, that seem exotic and impractical today.

The first fully self-driving cars were developed about a decade ago, suggesting it might take another two decades for computer scientists to turn the technology into a mainstream consumer product. Similarly, the technology to sequence an entire human genome has only been around for about 15 years. It's not surprising that we're still figuring out how to make it useful.

It seems likely that some kind of internet-based cryptocurrency will come into widespread use in the coming decades. But it might take a while for people to figure out how to use the technology effectively. And there's no guarantee that the mainstream crypto-currencies of the 2030s will be based on Bitcoin, rather than some other technology platform that hasn't been invented yet.